PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – Clashes between tribesmen and Taliban militants left 16 people dead in Pakistan’s northwest on Saturday, officials said, in the latest violence between pro-government tribal militias and insurgents.
Also Saturday, the Taliban said it shot down a helicopter that crashed Friday in the northwest, killing 26 government troops. The government blamed it on a technical problem.
The fighting between tribesmen and militants took place in remote Mohmand region, part of the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, killing 12 tribal militiamen and four insurgents.
Islamabad has encouraged local tribesmen in the semiautonomous frontier areas to establish militias, known as lashkars, to flush out Taliban fighters blamed for attacks in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.
Such groups have been set up in several regions but face stiff Taliban resistance.
Saturday’s clash was the first major fighting in months between tribesmen and militants in the Mohmand tribal region. Tribal elders have begun to clear the area of militants after receiving a warning from the military that it would be forced to send in troops if the tribesmen failed to either kill or evict the insurgents.
Dozens of militants attacked the tribesmen after receiving a warning from a council of tribal elders to leave the area, the official said.
“The fighting between tribesmen and Taliban began this morning, and so far 16 people, including 12 tribesmen and four Taliban, have died,” a local government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Local security officials confirmed the clashes and the death toll.
Access to the remote region is strictly controlled, and the account could not be independently verified. On Friday, a Pakistani army transport helicopter crashed, killing 26 people on board. The military said a mechanical fault caused the crash, although it also ordered an investigation. However, Taliban militants in the Khyber region near the crash claimed they shot down the helicopter.
“We destroyed this army helicopter,” said Mohammed, a Taliban spokesman who goes by only one name. Pakistan’s military has increased pressure on Taliban militants across the volatile northwest in recent months. It is preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, a region of the tribal belt where top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.